Football travels to Reno to take on the undefeated Wolf Pack

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Then-freshman defensive lineman Cam Thomas and then-junior defensive back Tariq Thompson surround Nevada then-freshman quarterback Carson Strong for a sack during the Aztecs’ 17-13 loss to the Wolf Pack on Nov. 9, 2019 at SDCCU Stadium.

by Andrew Finley, Staff Writer

The Mountain West Conference’s top-rated offense in Nevada takes on San Diego State football’s conference-leading defense in a pivotal MWC matchup to kickoff the second half of the season for both teams. 

At the halfway point of the Aztecs’ season, the Scarlet and Black own a 3-1 record and have yet to face an opponent whose win total is higher than theirs. The undefeated Nevada Wolf Pack will be their first when the Aztecs travel to Reno on Saturday, Nov. 21 at 12:30 p.m.

The game will be broadcasted nationally on CBS with Emmy-nominated announcer Brad Nessler on the call. SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said he’s making sure the team knows that every game matters down the stretch. 

“Every game is a championship game.” Hoke said, “You’ve got to win out, you’ve got to play your best football and improve every week. Those are things we talk about as a team.”

After opening their season with a 37-34 barn-burner victory over Wyoming, the Wolf Pack have been cruising through their schedule, taking down UNLV, Utah State and New Mexico to become 4-0 at the halfway point of the season. The undefeated record for Nevada is their best start since 2010  when Colin Kaepernick was the quarterback. 

Offense

As the top-scoring team in the MWC, Nevada is heavily reliant on their ability to pass the ball. They are the best team in the conference at passing. This season, their play mix is 64 to 36% passes to runs. Nevada runs their deep-threat offense out of three to four wide-receiver sets with their quarterback in the shotgun. 

Nevada offensive coordinator Matt Mumme is in his fourth year with the Pack. Mumme is a disciple of his father, Hal Mumme, who was an architect of the pass-dominant Air Raid offense and has collegiate playing and coaching experience as quarterback for Kentucky and head coach of LaGrange College in Georgia, respectively.

  Conference-leading passer Carson Strong is the quarterback for the Wolfpack. Junior defensive tackle Jonah Tavai and the rest of the Aztecs’ defense noted the challenge that Strong presents. 

 “This quarterback (Strong) has an arm and he’s got the accuracy.” Tavai said, “He’s a good pocket passer and we’ve just got to get home and affect him.”

 The sophomore quarterback has completed 71% of his passes for 1,517 yards, 12 touchdowns and a conference-best (with over 100 pass attempts) one interception in his four starts this season. Carson has yet to throw less than 330 yards and two touchdowns in a single game this season. Strong’s lowest yardage total came last week against New Mexico, as he completed 24 of his 38 throws for 336 yards, two touchdowns and his only interception of the season. 

Wide receivers

 The top passer in the conference happens to be throwing to the top receiver. Junior wide receiver Romeo Doubs leads the Wolfpack and the MWC with 31 catches for 645 yards and eight touchdowns. In his four games this season, Doubs is averaging just under eight catches, with 161 yards and two touchdowns per contest and has gone back-to-back weeks with over 135 yards and three touchdowns. Last week was Doubs’ most efficient game, catching five passes for 172 yards and three touchdowns with an average of 34.4 yards per catch. Brady Hoke said the Aztecs are well aware of how big of a threat Doubs has been this season.

“Doubs is obviously pretty special;” Hoke said, “He is leading the conference in pretty much every category as a wide receiver.”

Alongside Doubs, Nevada has six pass catchers with 10 or more receptions four games into the season. Junior tight end Cole Turner has been the second-most productive receiver for the Wolf Pack behind Doubs with 21 catches for 329 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore receivers Justin Lockhart and Melquan Stovall have 27 combined catches for 307 yards and one touchdown. Out of the backfield, junior running backs Toa Taua and Devonte Lee also contribute in the passing game, combining for 22 catches for 110 yards, averaging five yards per catch this year. 

Run game

The heavy passing attack of Nevada hides a quietly efficient run game by their top running backs. Taua is the Wolf Pack’s leading rusher with 39 rushes for 255 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 6.5 yards per carry. Right behind Taua is Lee with 32 attempts for 142 yards and one touchdown, and freshman running back Avery Morrow has run the ball 10 times for 82 yards and a touchdown. The Wolf Pack’s trio of running backs have combined for 81 rushes for 479 yards and four touchdowns for an average of 20 rushes a game for 120 yards and a touchdown — that’s an average of six yards per carry. 

When looking at the Wolf Pack’s rushing stats, the numbers would present this team is inefficient on the ground. However, that takes into account the 12 sacks Strong has taken in which he lost 93 total yards. His other three rushes which were scrambles went for just five yards. Those stats also account for the six other players who each have one rush apiece for a total of nine combined yards. 

Defense

Nevada’s defense has allowed 20.5 points per game while also giving up 317.8 yards per game this season. Opposing teams have amassed 191.8 passing yards and 126 rushing yards in four games played against the Wolf Pack. 

Notable players to watch are junior defensive back and Nevada’s tackle leader (27) Tyson Williams and junior defensive tackle Dom Peterson, who leads the Wolfpack with two sacks. 

The Wolfpack’s defense is a 4-3-4. They’ll load the box with five of six defenders on third downs with seven defenders on the line of scrimmage. The coverage from Nevada’s secondary is usually cover-four but also includes some cover-three with a drop-down safety. Nevada has eight sacks and two interceptions on defense this season. Despite what the numbers say, Hoke said Nevada’s defense poses a good challenge for the Aztecs. 

They have four senior defensive linemen up front; they are very physical and very active,” Hoke said. “I think they are sixth-nationally on third-down defense, so they are going to be a really good challenge for us, and we need to prepare.”

Overall

Nevada’s offense is the pride of their team. Strong leads the way with Doubs accounting for a third of his passing yards and two-thirds of his touchdowns. With a plethora of other reliable receiving options and a quietly efficient run game, the offense of the Wolf Pack has proven week-to-week they are a force to be reckoned with. 

This team is not without its limitations, however. Nevada’s defense has forced just two turnovers this season, while the offense has turned over the ball three times for a turnover differential of minus-one. Nevada is also the most-penalized team in the MWC, averaging nine penalties for 73.8 yards a game. The sub-zero differential and an abundance of penalties could easily benefit the Aztecs, who have proven to be a physical football team in 2020. 

The matchup to watch this week will be between the Nevada offense and the SDSU defense. Guarding Doubs will be the biggest challenge for the Aztecs. Tavai and the SDSU defense said they recognize the importance of covering receivers downfield in order to apply pressure in the backfield. 

They’ve (The SDSU secondary has) been giving us (the defensive line) time to get there all year,” Tavai said, “Especially last game, where the quarterback had to double-clutch and we had time to get home.”

If the Aztecs are able to create pressure on Nevada and continue to run the ball as efficiently and physically as they have this season, SDSU could hand the Wolf Pack their first loss of the 2020 season. 

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